WHAT “Angels in America”
WHERE Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St.
INFO $198-$498; 877-250-2929, ticketmaster.com
BOTTOM LINE Tony Kushner’s masterwork gets a high-impact revival.
“The great work begins.”
So ends “Angels in America,” and now, 25 years after it debuted, the high-impact revival of Tony Kushner’s landmark play that just opened on Broadway via London’s National Theatre is a moment for reflection on that prophecy.
Subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” the two-part play, with eloquent direction by Marianne Elliott, draws heavily on the AIDS crisis, an illness that today, while still devastating, is no longer the death sentence it once was. In that regard, “Angels” becomes a period piece, looking back at a time when cruising Central Park for a casual hookup was a life-threatening risk too often ignored.
Early in “Millennium Approaches,” the first of the two plays both set in the mid ’80s, Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield in a mesmerizing, unforgettable performance) discovers the Kaposi sarcoma lesions revealing the illness. His lover, Louis (James McArdle), is justifiably terrified and flees, eventually landing in the arms of Joe (Lee Pace), a conflicted Mormon struggling with his sexuality and his marriage to the Valium-addicted Harper (Denise Gough).
The major presence is of a man Kushner lifted from recent American history — Roy Cohn, the ruthless attorney of McCarthy hearings notoriety. Nathan Lane gives an emotional, fierce portrayal of Cohn, so firmly in denial of his homosexuality he tries to pass off his AIDS as liver cancer.
“Angels” presents a complicated story that covers nearly eight hours in two parts, a major commitment requiring audiences to maintain deep concentration just to keep up. But it’s time well spent, if only to revel in the glories of Ian MacNeil’s futuristic set and the spectacular performances of each actor, all of whom play multiple characters. Lane reverts to his comedic roots, portraying one of Prior’s deceased relatives. In one of her several roles, Susan Brown becomes a spectral vision of Ethel Rosenberg, whom Cohn prosecuted, and in a haunting scene says kaddish over his body. Everyone ends up as an angel at some point.
The agony of these characters continues in the second play, “Perestroika,” which early on gets lost in a drug-induced fantasy world of angels and Eskimos. Throughout, matters of religion and politics are mixed in. Near the end, Louis launches into almost reverential praise for the economic and political reforms of Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev that the play is named for, though another character immediately points out that “the Russians hate his guts.” What to make of all that at this moment on the American political stage I’m not sure, but it has been often noted in the run-up to this production that Kushner is working on a play about Donald Trump.
In any case, after eight hours immersed in its complexities, my most significant take-away is that the triumph of “Angels in America” is its subliminal call to action. The great work is far from complete.